The leadership styles and practices of school administrators in the district office have an overall effect on the tone and pace of schools throughout the community. Those in positions of leadership in the local schools, however, such as principal, assistant principal and dean, have the most influence on the atmosphere and achievement in individual buildings. But what does it really mean to be a strong school leader?

Leaders Then

Even in the recent past, the role of the principal was quite different than what we see today. A principal’s involvement with classroom activities used to be limited to making sure there were sufficient books and supplies and the physical needs of the teachers and students were met — consistent heating or air conditioning, sturdy desks and chairs, and functioning bathrooms.

The principal’s interaction with students was almost always a negative experience for both of them. If a school was large enough to support additional administrators, an assistant principal or dean usually handled student discipline, lunchroom organization and hallway behavior. Leading meant directing and managing, with little day-to-day involvement in classroom activities.

Leaders Now

The role of the school leader has changed significantly in the past few years. With the push for school reform and higher student achievement, the use of more complex assessment tools, and the introduction of more rigorous standards, the role of principal has become more than simple facilities manager and fiscal watchdog.

School leaders have a significant effect on the environment in which both students and teachers can find academic and personal success. Principals no longer sit at their desks or attend endless meetings about budgets or curriculum selection. The culture and tone of the school is strongly driven by its leadership, and school leaders have the responsibility of creating an atmosphere of mutual respect and concern. Teachers feel less isolated because they are in regular communication with school leaders and have access to materials and assistance when they need it.

Academic achievement has always been a top priority. With the shift in attitude about school leaders’ roles, however, student progress has become as important to school administrators as it is to classroom teachers and support staff. Principals are expected to keep up to date with not only the laws and mandates regarding school facilities and safety but also with academic standards, best practices of teaching, and current research in the areas of instruction and student behavior. They are also expected to be a supportive and frequent presence in the classroom, hallways, lunchrooms and other common areas.

In addition, school leaders are finding that interaction with the families and local businesses can prove to be a significant factor in the success of the school itself. Reaching out and involving the community in the school culture can raise awareness of the needs of both students and teachers, creating a sense of shared goals.

A Future in Educational Leadership

Educational leaders are also expected to promote leadership in others. Strong principals who recognize strengths and natural abilities in staff members can encourage staff to take on new roles and additional responsibilities that match their interests and talents.

Sara Kay Bonti, educator in Pasco and Hillsborough Counties in Florida, has “experienced firsthand how effective principals cultivate leadership in others.” Bonti was recruited to organize a high school Parents Night and spent a summer bridging the gap between middle- and high-school English courses, creating a smooth transition as students advanced through the grades. “Principals have found talents in me that I didn’t know I had,” Bonti said. “You can feel enriched beyond the classroom, and it’s great to feel you are a part of helping the whole school succeed.” Because of this encouragement, Bonti may become a principal herself.

Outside of the classroom, there are few ways you can make a difference in the lives and academic success of students. But the NEA believes that “strengthening the skills and knowledge of the nation’s 100,000 principals can have more immediate payoff in raising student performance than any other area of school improvement.”

At Eastern Michigan University, prospective school leaders learn from scholar practitioners in the Master of Arts in Educational Leadership program. This all-online program will prepare you for the rigors and challenges inherent in successful educational leadership positions. Making the degree program your next career step into school leadership may be best decision you can make for yourself and your students.

Learn more about the EMU online M.A. in Educational Leadership program.


The Christian Science Monitor: How the School Principal’s Job Has Changed

The Wallace Foundation: Five Key Responsibilities — The School Principal as Leader: Guiding Schools to Better Teaching and Learning

National Education Association: Changing Role of School Leadership